Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Christine Valters Paintner on the Unexpected

St. Benedict and the Rainstorm

Early February evening.
Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica,
talk for hours about dealing with wayward
monks, childhood memories, regrets, and how they
sometimes steal away to the forest to dance.

The beeswax candle extinguished, she
went to fetch another, dinner plates
pushed aside with drips of grease left from
roast chicken, celebrating this yearly
time together, the extra jug of wine nearly emptied.

He gets up to leave but she protests.
Benedict’s own Rule requires him
to be back at his monastery overnight.
Perhaps she knew she would die only three days later.
Or maybe the rose-hued glimmer of evening astonished her.

Or this was one of those moments she just wished
would linger on, her brother’s beard shining
silver in the growing moonlight, wanting to
remember the great brown kindness of his eyes,
feeling the rough warmth of his hands in hers.

Her tears rise up, falling in great splashes,
her weeping calls forth a fierce rainstorm.
Cosmic forces come down on the side of love,
demanding that self-set rules be broken.

I imagine the two of them listening to
the relentless rain beating down around them,
Benedict yielding to the moment, suddenly
seeing the necessity of riverbanks, but also the
widening expanse into the sea.

Perhaps that night they each dreamt that the river
swelled so high it lifted them to the blue bowl of sky,
until the horizon hallowed them.
Until he could see far beyond the stone walls
he had so carefully built.
—Christine Valters Paintner

I have always adored the story about Benedict and his sister Scholastica, which inspired this poem and appears in his biography written by St. Gregory. Benedict’s Rule is good and wise and worthy of its endurance, and the story says that we must hold this Rule lightly. It is a guide, not a tyrant, a trellis gently directing the soul's growth, not something so restrictive that life and love cannot flourish. I like to imagine the love shared between these two siblings for the soulfulness of the monk paths they both chose, their support of one another.

Whatever ways we shape our lives through commitment to practice, we are also called to hold it with enough spaciousness to let love have the final say. I think the sharp rise of fundamentalism in the modern world is a desperate attempt to rest in the security of rules. It is so much easier to point to an external authority than to follow the risky path of love. It is not one or the other, the contemplative life demands we hold both in tension.

Often our expectations of how life should unfold get in the way of meeting things as they actually are. I know this is true for me time and again, so I practice savoring the opportunity to meet my life with gentleness and ease. When we meet the unexpected with love, rather than opposition, we open the way for a more soulful path through life. In yielding my resistance I already find great healing. In softening my internal rules about what should happen, I discover such an invitation to grace.

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is a Benedictine oblate and runs a virtual monastery, Abbey of the Arts, along with John, her husband of twenty-one years. Together they live in Galway, Ireland where they welcome pilgrims to the wild edges. Christine has published nine books on contemplative practice and creative expression including her forthcoming book, "Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics", from Ave Maria Press.

What does it mean to you to, “let love have the final say?”
Can you think of a time when you were able to “soften your own internal rules about what should happen”? Describe what that was like for you. 

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